It Killed To Be Kind

Boots’s Pick
Krystal Columna


The cemetery outside of Memorial, Georgia has nothing against killers. It accommodates a young one, caressing him in its cool, earthy bosom just like everyone else who’s dead. The headstones, as close together as wildflowers and some almost intertwined, belong to dead citizens of Memorial and other nearby small towns. They cast death’s remains out of their little towns, keeping them close enough to visit on holidays.

The houses in this area are like toadstools after a summer rain shower. Clusters of them are sprinkled sparsely about the green expanse that dips into the earth and rises again into uneven grassy mounds. A slow river curves like a vine beside the cemetery grounds, eventually pouring into the Gulf of Mexico—an exchange that began long before killer Tony Wildes was planted among that garden of headstones by the river, and long before his birth. The river will continue its steady amble past the cemetery where Tony and many others stay rooted, unless something catastrophic happens, like the nature of Tony’s death. When he was fourteen, Tony Wildes killed three people—about a month after getting a pit bull who wagged her tail a lot. His dad was the second down, and Tony was third after he shot himself in an abandoned house.

Tony’s very last Christmas Day began as listless and empty as the one before it—the one where his mother went out for cigarettes and never returned, which was no big deal. His dad watched TV while burning a turkey and getting drunk—he prided himself as a great cook, and he was when he was sober, this aptitude earned from many years cooking in several southern restaurants. It ended when he began drawing disability checks for being too “depressed” to work.

Tony sat in the dingy recliner next to his, much smaller and laden with stiff springs. There were cigarette burns and tears in the cloth. It was the one his mother sat in, where she smoked many Pall Mall cigarettes and rocked him when he was a baby. When he was a little kid, his gloom and fear bravely showed, and she rocked him then, too. As he grew older, his emotions began to recede behind scrunched-up, bushy brows and an angry frown.

He could remember being rocked by her at age seven, and she had sung to him, over and over in her scratchy voice, that his life was precious, that he was special. The drunken, uninhibited words his father said, though, would always override her na├»ve pity: Son, when you get older, you’ll see you’re just a number. Another star in the sky. How many of ’em do you know by name? You’re born, which costs somebody. For you, it’s me and your ma. Then, you pay for livin’ while your livin’, then you die, ha, the big payment. The check to God. You pay all kinds of ways while you’re livin’, taxes is one. And this whippin’ I’m about to give you is another.

All the windows were raised in the single-wide trailer so that the hazy stench of burnt turkey and smoke could escape, and the outside air was pleasant, only warranting a windbreaker. Georgia’s undecided weather bothered Tony because the day before, when he was helping his dad pump air out of the Dodge Ram’s brake line, the icy gusts of wind made his breath look like fine white powder and froze his fingertips. Hawaii sounded nice, like Heaven.

Tony felt the cool breeze from outside as it billowed through the curtains that his mother had hung years before. They were pale yellow and as delicate as her hands were when she placed them on his forehead to feel for fever. He watched Ralphie getting kicked down the slide by Santa, on TV. He looked at his drunken father, who gave an amused grunt and smirked at the television. His eyes were two red, dying stars with still a small twinkle evident in these rare instances of delight. Tony watched his dad tilt a beer bottle to his mouth, his smile funneling around the tip as he gulped. Afterwards, he rested the bottle on the worn brown carpet beside the chair and stared, as if focusing past the TV—gazing far into a plane Tony couldn’t see.

Tony wanted to tell him “Merry Christmas” and maybe even offer a hug, though the sour smell of Old Milwaukee sweated through his dad’s pores and hung on his clothes like fabric softener. His dad’s glassy eyes abandoned that far-away place beyond the television for a moment, and dangerously homed in on Tony’s misty eyes.

“What the hell do you want, why are you lookin’ at me all needy? I’m cooking a turkey for Christ’s sake. We’re watching a Christmas special, like families do. Damn boy, you’re like your mama, just sitting there starin’ at me like I’m a mind-reader.”

“Merry Christmas, Dad.” Tony’s chin quivered and his eyes retreated to the TV screen, away from his dad’s glower.

“Guess that means, ‘Give me Christmas money.’ Here,” his dad lifted his rear slightly from the seat and pulled forth a warped wallet. He extended his arm across the short expanse between them, handing Tony a fifty dollar bill between two fingers, along with an order for him to quit whining, or else.

After his father dozed off, Tony turned off the oven, wondering how many other kids were like him, nothing, not important. He left the turkey inside so it would stay warm—without eating a single bite. He meandered about the woods behind the trailer; leaves crunched under his feet and a dove or a quail, he didn’t care which, delivered coos of sympathy.

He fished out a pint of whiskey from his windbreaker, filled from his dad’s jug. He squinted his eyes and swigged two scorching cheekfulls. With grateful appreciation, he pulled a bottle of Coke from his other pocket, like a trick rabbit. He took a few soothing swallows, washing his revolted tongue and fiery throat.

He thought he was alone, except for the bird. Then he reached the old rotted house that had sat neglected for years—nothing much to it anymore—and saw what looked like a reddish-colored dog dart underneath the porch, with heavy udders swaying back and forth, which had probably nursed many hungry mouths. Two bone-dry bowls lay on the ground.

He crouched on all fours so he could look under the house. A taut rope pulled to the back of the shady lair, and his eyes met those of a shivering pit bull.

“Here, puppy puppy puppy!” Tony called, half-heartedly. She tried to scoot further away. He gruffly grabbed the rope and tried to pull her to him, but she grunted and choked, sounding like a person trying to hack up mucus.

“Screw it, you don’t want help, ugly bony-ass dog,” Tony muttered and headed home.

His dad was asleep in his recliner when Tony showed up. He headed to the kitchen, and on the way did a stupid little skip for the hell of it. His dad had already hacked into the turkey, burnt on the outside. The inside was moist, and he ate the meat, so hot that steam seeped out of his mouth.

The face of the dog, the empty bowls on Christmas Day, flashed in front of his mind’s eye and unsettled his contented stomach. He couldn’t believe he cared. With quick fingers, he began peeling off the hot, burnt outside of the turkey into a large container. He broke off a drumstick, wolfed down the meat, then added the bone to the treat. He filled up a canteen with water, and lit out for the woods.

First, he poured the turkey. He emptied water into the other bowl, then got on all fours again and looked at the dog. The aroma was tickling her twitching nose, and her head was wavering. Tony hid behind a tree, and like a freed criminal, the dog charged from under the house. She ate all the turkey in three noisy bites, gulping and grunting. Then, she started lapping up the water, for ten minutes it seemed. She disappeared back under the house.

 

Tony lay on his twin bed, as the humdrum Christmas day tapered off into a humdrum winter night. He kept pushing thoughts of the dog away.

“What in the hell are you layin’ on that bed for? Clean up the mess in the kitchen,” his dad growled, standing in Tony’s doorway.

Tony put on the same yellow rubber gloves his mom used to wear as the water slowly flowed from the sink’s faucet. His dad would never fix it for her, beat Tony for trying to. As he scrubbed the turkey dish, the thought of the dog popped into his head, again.

“Boy, why you’s just standin’ there for, didn’t I say to clean up?” His dad roared the last two words. Tony went back to scrubbing with a trembling chin and red face.

“What’s the matter with you. Gave ya Christmas money. Whatchu swelled up about?” his dad demanded. Tony didn’t know whether to say, “I miss Mama,” though her disappearance was really no big deal, or tell him about the dog, and how she ate the burnt turkey in three mighty gulps.

“Did you ever have a dog, Dad?”

“So that’s it. Yeah, but you don’t need no dog. They’re trouble, and sneaky, too. Lick ya in the face, dance all around, then, when you’re not lookin’, piss all over your clothes. Dogs are too much like people. Get the idea of a dog out yer head.”

“I found a pit bull in the woods today,” Tony said, hoping the fact she was a pit would add “value” to her, make him want to help her.

“A pit, huh? Female?” his dad inquired with a twinkle in his eye.

“Yeah! Chained up to that old rickety house. Can I have her?” Tony’s eyes widened like the quarters his mom used to scrape up for him so he could play Gauntlet Legends.

“Does she bite?” he asked Tony in a voice of acceptance.

“Nah, she won’t even come to people. She just shakes.”

“Say, your Uncle Delmus has a good-lookin’ male pit. What color was she?”

“Reddish-orange”

“Really, she’s a red-nose then. That’s what Delmus’s dog is, a red-nose. We’ll see if she looks full-blooded.”

Tony finished the dishes and wiped down the counters, and wondered if the dog would follow him in the woods, walk by his side like a friend. He wondered if she’d slice his dad’s throat when she witnessed the beatings. He wondered if she was wishing he’d come back to look at her again.

At nightfall, Tony and his dad stood in front of the dilapidated house, grasping flashlights and wearing heavy jackets since the weather was finally behaving like winter. Tony looked up and saw a shooting star, dying unnoticed to all the world but him. A fleeting one among billions more that no one cared about or even acknowledged.

Tony told him that the dog stayed far under the house, and that pulling the rope choked her.

“I think she’s already pretty messed up, and starved. I’ll try to coax her out instead of pulling her,” Tony offered.

“Watch this,” his dad said with a half-smile. Holding his flashlight, he grabbed the rope one-handed and pulled with an angry force.

“Come on, you bitch” he said as he yanked her out. She made the choking sounds again and Tony cringed. He walked over to look at the skeletal pit that was at his dad’s mercy. She was wheezing and panting in the flashlight’s glare, but thumped the ground with her wagging tail harder than Tony had ever seen a dog wag.

Mr. Wildes shook his head, then spoke. “What a shame. She’s got mangled legs. Looks like the left one’s broke. But she’s got a huge head.”

“Yeah, she’ll make a good breeder,” Tony said, feeling nausea rise with his words. He wondered if she’d trust him around her puppies.

“True. That’s the only reason I’m lettin’ you keep her. You’re gone hafta carry her home,” he told Tony, who couldn’t stop smiling.

“Quit grinning like a raccoon eatin’ shit, and get the mutt. Let’s go, it’s cold.”

The three headed back to the house. Tony felt like hugging his dad and saying “thanks” for the first time in years. He’d never felt so proud to carry something. Someone.

Back home, Mr. Wildes tied the end of the rope around a thin tree.”Now, you’re gonna hafta watch out. She’s got a swivel on her neck, but she can still wrap ’round this tree and be hell to unwind,” he told his son, who shook his head yes.

Tony applied antibiotic ointment to the deep wound on her left leg, and made a splint for it. He administered left-over amoxicillin to her three times a day, just like the doctor ordered for him when he had bronchitis. By the second day, the dog trusted him. It seemed that Mr. Wildes’s heart softened for a moment, because he tried to pet Petunia, too. As quickly as fleas leap from a dead dog’s corpse, he was mean again, cussing at the dog. He spat beside her. “Worthless,” he snarled.

After three days, the swelling had gone down on the broken leg considerably, and she began half-walking on the leg on day six. After two weeks, she filled out. Tony had built her a doghouse the day after her rescue, digging the best pieces of wood from an old pile in the backyard. His dad had even helped hold pieces together as Tony hammered. A few times, he’d even tried to take over. Every day, Tony brushed her coat of scars and lumps.

When she met her health’s potential, Mr. Wildes told his son that it was time to breed her. They walked outside and looked at her. She was muscular, stocky and broad. Her head was massive. Her tail never ceased its wagging, though her legs bowed like a cartoon cowboy’s and caused a pained limp. Once again, Mr. Wildes tried petting her. This time, he was drunk. She retracted quickly and retreated to the dog house.

“Come here, mutt!” he screamed at the dog, and she started shaking. He reached his hand into the dog house and grabbed her by the snout. She violently shook her body back and forth and made a high-pitched squeal deep in her throat.

“Boy, if you don’t call the got-damn pound, I’m gonna shoot this son-of-a-bitch.” His lips turned white around the edges when they curled over his yellow teeth.

Tony felt like his body was in the air. It was like going upside down on a roller coaster. His dad’s glaring blue eyes were a stab in the gut. He envisioned Petunia shaking in the concrete gas chamber along with callused animals from horrific homes, making the choking sounds for one last time. She’d die with the stench of exhaust on her shiny orange hide he brushed and washed.

“I’ll shoot her,” Tony interjected coolly. He face didn’t redden, nor did his chin quiver.

“I told you that you can call the pound,” Mr. Wildes said with sympathy in his voice as rare as a solar eclipse. That was the calmest and softest he had ever spoken since he told Tony his granny was dead.

“I want to shoot her with your nine millimeter,” Tony said.

The drunken man shrugged, and walked back into the house. Before he did, he looked at Tony. “You just leave her alone, she ain’t never hurt nobody. She don’t like me. That pisses me off, ya know.”

Tony watched the dog for a few minutes. He didn’t figure she was much good, didn’t even bark when a stranger came into the yard, much less crunch his dad’s jugular vein. She cowered at his sight! All the bark had been beat out of her. Her fur was sparse, too, because hair didn’t grow where the scars were. And those legs. They were comically contorted, gnarled like oak roots. They’d probably been broken several times.

He peeked into the living room at his dad, who had been watching TV, but his head was slumped over in sleep. After grabbing the nine millimeter from the top of the fridge, he buttoned the holster around his belt. He found a thin rope, about two feet long, and walked outside to Petunia.

“We’re back where we met,” Tony said, standing with Petunia in front of the decrepit house in the woods. She’d followed him without a struggle. He tied her up. She was wagging her tail, and her eyes followed him as he pulled the nine millimeter from its holster. He put the gun to her head and she wagged her tail wildly, trying to lick the gun. He quickly pulled the trigger and a loud pop resounded, along with the gunshot. She dropped immediately, and her mouth moved a little, as if she were trying to bark. Just nerves, Tony had said aloud. Her tail wagged a little more, then stopped. She was sprawled out on the ground, with some blood trickling from the side of her head. That was all; it was no big deal.

“Well, she’s not suffering anymore. Don’t have to worry about arthritis in the legs, or being chained up, or being hassled by a drunk,” Tony mused, heading back to the house for a Hefty bag and a shovel. He was hungry, and thirsty. There wasn’t a soda in the house, and he decided he wanted to walk to the Jiffy Mart before digging a hole for Petunia. He needed to process things.

He walked by the living room, and told his dad he was walking to the store and would be back. His dad grunted in acknowledgement and continued to snore. Tony almost put the gun back, but he liked the weight of it on him. It was powerful, and made things permanently better. Nothing else did, not even money.

On the way to the store, he passed a lonesome bridge. This was a place you’d be sorry to be if you needed to use a phone for an emergency; there weren’t any houses for a mile either way. He needed to pee, so he walked down the steep slope to go under the bridge. He smelled smoke as he walked closer.

Under the shady bridge was a steel drum that held scorched sticks smoldering into glowing orange coals. A wrinkled white man with no teeth appeared from the shade of the bridge.

“Whatchu doin’ here?” said the old man, clutching a dented aluminum bat with raw-boned fingers. “Go away from here!”

Tony looked at him, and smiled.

The hobo shot him a contemptuous look and his bottom jaw involuntarily wobbled, as if he were still talking. “What in the hell are you grinnin’ for? Get gone!”

Tony looked at the disheveled old man with scars on his arms and a few on his face. He was toothless with ratty, shaggy gray hair, and dirty clothes. “What are you livin’ for?” Tony asked.

The old man stared at him, one eye looking at the sky. “I said, get the hell out of here!”

“I think you’re miserable. Are you miserable?” Tony asked. He figured he was, but at least he could ask him. He was never able to ask Petunia.

“What the hell do you think? I’m old, nobody will hire me or help me, and I go without a meal for days. The soup kitchen ain’t open every day. And when I do eat, I can only eat mush or soup. I have to walk everywhere I go and look at how old I am! Nobody will help me.”

“I will,” Tony said, reaching for his nine millimeter.

Tony walked up the steep hill back up the road, thinking about the old man lying under the bridge and feeling good about helping someone else again. He only hoped nobody would go under the bridge until he made it home. The body would probably stay there until it started to reek, and be discovered when someone realized it wasn’t the stench of a dead animal.

After he paid for his soda and hot dog, he asked for the clerk for quarters.

“Hey Dad,” Tony said, holding the receiver to the pay phone.

“Where are you calling from, and where’s the dog?”

“Oh, I’m at the Jiffy Mart, and I called to let you know I killed her.”

“Dammit, I didn’t want you to do that shit. I wanted to breed her. I had already told Delmus. You need your ass wore out. You better stay gone a while so I can cool down, if you know what’s good for you.”

“No, Dad. I want to come back now. We’re not going to have anymore worries when I get back.”

“What the hell are you talking about now? Did you hit the jackpot or something?”

“Sort of. You’ll see when I get home.”
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Krystal is a 23-year-old mother of two, and a junior at Valdosta State University majoring in English. E-mail: krcolumna[at]valdosta.edu